For her latest culinary adventure, intrepid cook-in-training Reggie Nadelson heads to Harlem, where she learns an authentic southern specialty from a revered master.
The oil sizzles, snaps, crackles in the seasoned black cast-iron pan. The skillet feels a hundred years old, something seasoned with depth and age and history. Tentatively I pick up a chicken leg with a pair of tongs, dip the edge in the oil to gauge the sizzle. In the kitchen of Rack & Soul on Manhattan’s far Upper West Side, I’m frying chicken. This is deeply satisfying stuff, simple stuff—an almost pure process. Charles Gabriel, the head chef, stands over my shoulder, face shining, doling out advice in his soft North Carolina drawl.
“If the oil sizzles, it’s ready and you can put the chicken in,” Charles explains. “You have to keep with it, keep turning it.” He takes the tongs from my hand and gently lifts and turns and moves the pieces around, as if they were a baby in its bath. “I only use soybean oil because it’s not greasy,” he adds. “Greasy chicken isn’t any good.”
But first there’s the seasoning and the egg wash and the flour. By the time I arrived Charles had already seasoned the bird, which had been in the fridge overnight. But he lets me mix up some salt, pepper, and granulated onion and garlic, just enough to create a rub, and shows me how to spread it over a naked, still-unseasoned bird, which he’ll use later in the day. Can we talk chickens? I ask. “I always use a good bird, but generally it’s the kind you can get at the supermarket,” says Charles, whose restaurants—he has cooked all over Harlem for 30 years—have always fed pretty much anyone of any income. He needs to think about the price; still, “You could try a free-range chicken at home, but I don’t think it really matters as far as taste goes,” he says.
I beat an egg into a cup of milk. Then Charles and I “bathe” the chicken in the egg wash and coat each piece in flour seasoned with the same rub that he used on the bird itself.
“Not too much seasoning, or it comes out too salty,” Charles says.
“That’s it?” I ask.
Charles gives me his benign smile. As far as preparing goes, that is it—that and 40 years of experience and the irreplaceable addition of what you could call soul.
“I always use a black cast-iron skillet. The bigger, the heavier the better,” Charles says, handing me the soybean oil and instructing me to pour it about halfway up the skillet. He then switches on the burner. We stand together in the kitchen and wait for the oil to heat.
“Did you bring this skillet from the South?” I ask. “Did it belong to your mother?”
He smiles again. “I get them in Manhattan, on Bowery, at a place called Mark’s,” he says. Kindly he does not suggest that I may have perhaps read too many novels of the old South.
Charles Gabriel grew up in rural North Carolina near Charlotte, one of 21 children. His family descended from sharecropping. “I started cooking chicken with my mother when I was eleven,” he says. “We got all our own food. We grew our own beans, we killed our chickens, we butchered our pigs. With vegetables and fruit, we pickled and canned everything for the winter months.” He very rarely saw a grocery store.
By the time he got to New York as a young man, he could—and did—cook at the best places in Harlem. Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen is the name of his own restaurant and fried- chicken takeout on 151st Street, and it’s legendary.
A disclaimer: I tried preparing fried chicken once and my kitchen wall ended up resembling a really bad Expressionist painting: Chicken Fat on Semigloss. The outside of that bird was weird, hard, and greasy, the in- side as dry as the Kalahari. In my mind there is a platonic ideal of the dish: tender, crispy, crusted, moist, and juicy, all-American southern fried chicken. The ideal fried chicken, if you ask me, is always southern. It’s bred in the bone down there. Everyone I’ve ever met from the South has an idea about it; everyone had a mother, father, grandma, housekeeper who had the right stuff. There was always someone named Gladys Mae who fried the chicken of your dreams.
“You never want to use a deep fryer,” Charles tells me. “It comes out too greasy. My mother never, ever did that.” He glances at the sizzling skillet. “Okay, it feels ready. Put in the dark meat first,” Charles advises, and I start placing flour-coated chicken in the hot oil. One by one, I add the pieces—legs, thighs, then breast, then the wings. With the tongs, I turn them over and
over, one at a time, paying attention to the color as instructed. The meat begins to brown. I can almost feel it crisping up under the tongs. This is the most wonderfully tactile experience I’ve had in all my cooking lessons. It is pleasurable in an elemental way—first the washing in egg and milk, then the flour, now the frying. I stand in the hot kitchen, not caring about the sweat on my forehead. Nothing matters except the way the chicken browns in the oil.
“If I use the same oil for two or three batches of chicken, it will get even better,” Charles explains. “The oil becomes seasoned. The last of three batches will always be the best-looking. In the South, of course, we always saved the oil. We poured it into a can or jar.”
After about 15 minutes we begin re-moving the chicken from the skillet. I place the pieces on a rack set in a roasting pan, though I could also drain them on a paper towel. And then we eat.
The chicken is wonderful. I can’t think of any fancy adjectives for it. It is, in the real sense, soul food, in that it’s comforting and transcendent. Good fried chicken doesn’t take long to make, but it takes 40 years to make it like this. I eat it plain, no sides, no hot sauce, just a glass of cold beer to wash it down. It’s as if Charles Gabriel, who grew up in a very rural South—utterly isolated and free of outside influence—makes southern fried chicken that is totally unadulterated. I reach for more. “You should be able to eat three or four pieces without feeling as though you ate a basketball,” says Charles. The only word I can think of to describe this bird—though, yes, it has been smothered in flour and submerged in grease—is pure.
FRIED CHICKEN Makes enough for 4 people
- 1 chicken, approx. 3 lbs, cut into about eight pieces
- seasoning: salt, pepper, granulated onion, granulated garlic
- 1 egg
- 1 cup milk
- 4 cups flour
- soybean oil
- Mix seasoning into a rub and spread all over chicken pieces. Cover chicken.
- Leave chicken in fridge for a minimum of eight hours (up to 24 hours).
- Beat egg into milk, adding 5 pinches of the seasoning.
- Add 5 pinches of the seasoning to the flour.
- Dip each piece of chicken into egg wash, then coat with flour.
- Fill cast-iron skillet about halfway up with soybean oil, heat until about 425°F, or until chicken sizzles when dipped in.
- When the oil is hot, place each piece in, dark meat first. Tend very carefully with tongs, keeping the oil temperature steady, turning constantly until golden brown (about 15 minutes).
- Place each piece on paper towel or a rack for about three minutes to drain completely.
- Serve with collard greens, potato salad, cold beer, lemonade.
Rack & Soul, where Charles Gabriel serves his fried chicken, is at 2818 Broadway (at 109th St.), New York; 212-222-4800